…than Agencies and Filmmakers. Why do transmedia professionals have a difficult time achieving authentic and fluid transmedia stories and why do ‘existing’ branded entertainment & digital agencies tend towards lowest common denominator, tried and tested formulaic cross media, more about PR, advertising and marketing than real ‘story’ focused engagement. Against this and rather paradoxically we have the ‘so-called’ audience/users actually telling their ‘life’ stories across platforms in a much more natural and engaging way.
Having produced and studied cross media since 1997 (“What do Audiences Want” BBC pres) one very large and persistent problem has always been creating authentic transmedia stories – natural story arcs and bridges that lead you onward through a long format, multi platform experience. So why is this? What techniques do makers of user created transmedia (you and I wearing our normal, connected people hats) employ that make it more interesting to their target audience and what can the ‘artificial storytellers’ learn?
note: this is a personal/user POV condensed version of a longer chapter intro section in my wip book Networked Media Storytelling: Transmedia Design and Production.
Firstly excuse the use of the term ‘audience’ in the title, it is still a convenient catch-all for the ‘great unwashed’, old BBC term 🙂 or rather, non-professional creators. Of course we are equals and participant users when using well designed professional transmedia services, but what do ‘users’ do when telling their own stories, that pro “experience creators” don’t do and may possibly never achieve?
Before we proceed this is not comparing apples and oranges as on one side we have ‘user created transmedia’ (UCT?) ‘life stories’ aimed at a specific ‘user group’ and on the other professionally created transmedia ‘fiction’ aimed at fans or niche ‘players’. Both have a target audience and both have stories to tell.
To help frame this even more a ‘simple’ example. A typical well networked person wants to share an experience, tell a single (or part of a longer arc) story to ‘their’ audience, lets say (deliberately mundane!) a personally amazing chance encounter with a strange overseas friend who share stories during a mini afternoon catch-up adventure & challenges at various city locations. Challenges being obnoxious shop assistants or overcharging taxi driver etc: 🙂 Remember this is their, Hero’s Journey, we all have one every moment of our lives, some bigger than others. In this example the main user has a pre-existing networked media story environment (amongst other networked elements) consisting of:
- 500 facebook friends
- run a well read blog
- 1200 twitter followers
- regular FourSquare user
- a heavily subscribed YouTube channel
- a busy personal flickr account
- use sms and skype a lot
- meet up with their physical social circle regularly
Full size link – As the image illustrates I hope, and this is probably old hat to many reading this post, we can see how the rippling of moments (Laurel Papworth covers the social aspects of this in great detail in her post Ripple: Social Network Influencers) across the users ‘story world’ is constantly punctuated as the story develops. Also notice how the story world is setup – the Foursquare updates for example ‘this is where I am – if something happens you will already know…” reinforcing environment and back story. It is important also to take on-board that the user in this case feels the ‘need’ to share, part of their being is now about being constantly active in ‘their story’ network, that need will be reflected by by the network (aka a captive audience) – often it will be quick bursts of activity in real time, pushing messages outwards and occasionally responding to ‘influential’ friends as they know those contacts will proliferate the story even more. Notice also in the diagram that auto updates (twitter pushing into Facebook or flickr) are an acceptable part of more social storytelling as the need to know means a level of ‘spam’ acceptance. I could go on but this is to partly demonstrate how
Today’s socially networked users are evolving into the most talented and natural transmedia storytellers, able to fluently manipulate, create and respond across multiple ‘personally nurtured’ channels transforming in the process something very complex into something beautifully simple
OK the best pro-transmedia relies on the social media connections above to disperse their narratives but as with any form of 3rd party story, we see it is a temporary viral layer (movies, TV shows, games etc) on top of their deeper, personal life story…
The most successful element in user created transmedia are the natural bridges between channels and platforms whereas professional transmedia storytellers often force feed its audience explicit or contrived ‘in your face’ links
As usual my preamble has turned into a tome so without further ado here are ten sections that came from lectures I did on transmedia design at various presentations and higher ed establishments in 2008/9 which I will put up on my slideshare account along with some transmedia bible templates – highlighting some of the fundamental and underlying principles of an authentic networked story environment. I have compared responses to each from an UCT and professional creators perspective, across the specific kinds of interactions within the transmedia, social environment. These are all appropriate to drama, documentary and brand/ad transmedia design, production and storytelling.
NURTURING NETWORKED MEDIA STORYTELLING – WHY AUDIENCES DO IT BETTER
1 A Trusted Story Environment
How much does the target user base trust the ‘networked environment’ – are they regular users of each channel? To create a trusted story environment requires months and years of slowly building up a belief in the validity of your ‘stories’ ON those particular channels/platforms, that the back story and on-going narratives have a natural place there. This is also about suspension of disbelief – a term used to justify any poorly conceived story world – but it is about something more deep rooted, where we spend our ‘real’ lives. Facebook, blogs, social media networks & casual games are places that web users now spend most time (see recent August 2010 AdAge Nielsen stats below)
so User Created Transmedia has many channels inherently built in, ready to go. Compare that with some over built, appointment to view flash site with pop-ups and cinematic music, it is alien and unknown, even if part of a well constructed narrative, it is a barrier for many, jolted into a strange space – areas of the web they generally don’t spend much time at anyhow. Be wary of creating too many web 1.0 (disconnected) satellite sites…
2 Authenticity & Trust
Does the story and/or characters feel real. For many users their networked story environment has been built up over many years, up to 12 years in some cases. It exists and there are real people involved, not tongue-in-cheek, back story actors reading hastily thrown together scripts or off cuts from the TV or Film! A real issue for artificial story is the perceived authenticity of the story teller. Do we know them? If we don’t have to know them are there characters believable and palatable, do they resonate with us? Of course good film scripts all have resonant characterisation but often we seriously suspend our belief to a point, when they are completely artificial. People using physical and online social networks and web based inter family communication have an innate ability to spot authenticity as the ‘characters’ involved have well known behaviours. So as a creator of stories into social media channels particularly there is a choice at some point – gain trust through disclaiming that everything is fake OR make the characters so sincere and believable that it comes as a shock later (and expect to lose trust regardless here) that they are fake – Lonely Girl anyone. Another small update here, I am also keen to reference Scott Ellington’s comment on a previous post ‘What Makes the Perfect Transmedia Producer’ where he used the expression “Speak Audience Natively” which sums up a language that few professionals have mastered…even though they are occasionally one of the audience!
3 Meaningful Play
There is a big difference between what people actually do for ‘personal’ Play and what supposedly playful things are created for them. Often transmedia creators will build mental challenges or superficial ‘cool’ web mash-ups or grid based video portals as some of the core connected islands of their story worlds and often this is far removed from ‘truly’ engaging social or game play – I often refer to this as ‘broadcast interactivity’, web toys that like XMas day morning are opened and discarded the same day. The principles of social online games, World of Warcraft chatter, Farmville collaboration or twitter repartee for example, is all about real time communication, co-creation, collaborative problem solving and the playful’ness that this can bring. Artificially created play in some of the core components of networked media stories leaves much of the interplay out of the equation – it is about story delivery not story play. This is a fundamental error in the design. The way users themselves create playfulness in their conversations and stories (conversation = content) is by trusting others who may create games around their core story – a twitter hash tag, a photo hunt (first one to find a picture of…), silly role playing and so on. There is a massive difference between improvised social game creation and constructed game delivered via a game engine. See my post the fragments of transocialmedia play for more on this.
4 Personalized Narrative
Once drawn into a story how believable is it as it progresses and moves around media channels. A real challenge with pro transmedia design is also how to make the tempo match the underlying story arcs and compounded with this is often rather badly written or over-acted, locked down sequences. In UCT (user created transmedia – I will use the acronym from now on) we have characters operating in real time so the story unfolds naturally, we can follow them 24/7, actually ‘be’ a part of their world and it reminds me why Online Caroline (something that I regard as the first real transocialmedia story, part ARG to that extent from 1999) was more successful in this area at least. As Jill Walker says in her review ‘How I was Played by Online Caroline‘
“Caroline watches me as much as I watch her in this fiction. I have a clear role in the story, as I would in a computer game and yet not as in a computer game. There is no space for me to act on my own initiative in Online Caroline. I can only speak when spoken to, and the allowed responses are few. My role is that of the confidante. My function is simply to allow the heroine to speak. As the story progresses, however, I realise that the program knows more about me than I have deliberately told it.” Jill Walker 2003
5 Appropriate Production Values
Each channel of the networked media story environment requires the right kind of style of production. We don’t expect to see a four camera Jerry Bruckheimer,cinematic edit/production of a person in a bedroom on YouTube (or even a transmedia hub site) if they are meant to be filming themselves doing an emotive piece to camera – but sadly we often do…
Over-produced sequences placed into social media channels that are supposedly meant to be UGC will immediately raise the alarm and like an invading virus in the body, the cells of the network will come out in force to eradicate it not by attacking it but by telling everyone to ignore it
Anecdotally, I recall recently a well known producer over here in Australia advertising in the press for a camera operator who could ‘really make it look like people generated camera work and not professional shaky cam’ I then remembered I was the one who told him to do that! But we are not just talking about rich media, glossy photoshopped images, crystal clear audio or video but even the style of text, how a character would write an update on twitter is different from Facebook and is certainly different to a line in a film. Yet most pro writers really don’t get this – primarily because they don’t spend time in those networks. That is another post. Finally, as implied in my camera ad ref above, appropriate production value also refers to artificially created effects. Even if you get the acting, writing, video/stills styles correct suddenly we have really bad ‘interference’, crackling that is straight from a final cut filter preset. The reason UGT is so much better is that the ‘produced’ elements are not manipulated and are done ‘at source’, in the real environment and not imported in from ‘professional’ edit suites etc: Consider how production of the future, for effective transocialmedia storytelling, needs to downgrade the tools.
6 Reason for Involvement
Why bother getting involved in your story? For UGT it is primarily about personal reasons, someone we know and love already is telling us a story about them, across a range of channels – off you go! For the pros who are dealing with a big brand (AvaBatLost anyone) the existing fans are an easy target and they are willing to spend ‘some’ of their time bathing in your transmedia story. But unknown story environments, new brands or ‘celebs’ is often a real uphill struggle, as many have discovered. Without a well nurtured story networked environment, new pro entrants for most of the ten reasons here, cannot get traction. They will pick up a few hundred ‘hard core’ try any new transmedia thing users, but pulling in a million or two players is only gonna happen in a long haul. Sadly this means transmedia story worlds for a few more years will be ‘superficial’ wham bang mass media at its core or jokey viral points of entry – until both the social networks allow in the great pretenders or the design of the services change to be much more personal and social. This goes beyond a widget that does a clever facebook connect flash widget mashup OR endless old school mafia wars/farmville spams – but something where the story is more integrated into the users social stream. Simple UCT analogy – I will allow my friends to tell their stories to my other friends.
If your transmedia story and my social online world are compatible and have similar values I will allow you to sow your story fragments in my garden – but I will be watching you!
7 Recommended Trails and Bridges
When I wrote the brief Story Environment definition over on Wikipedia it was primarily to illustrate what an influence the ‘space’ around us has on our acceptance of it but also how that space can breed its own narrative/s. Over produced transmedia requires in many cases a leap of faith to follow bridges to other platforms and often to cul de sac websites to follow a story whereas if we know that a ‘certain’ person already in our network often sends meaningful links, you recognise the trail and accept going across the bridge. This goes beyond the ‘check out this cool video email’ and can be as different and deep as a friend or a company sending an sms to go to a personal development site that will change your life…we all know which one we are likely to follow (even with gifts, money & no risk offers!). Pro-transmedia creators who also try to manipulate inner social trust will face backlash. UCT is all about a much more fully grown and connected story network structure, like the human brain the neural pathways and bridges are locked down…
8 Relationship Development
What is the real potential for me as a transmedia user to actually really connect with the story or any of the characters in it. I was part of a user research team many years ago and one surprise that came out early on was what drives users of broadband TV and web video services. In one section they were asked a range of interactions about what is more important, top of the list (above winning prizes, being immersed in the story etc) was being on the leader board / seeing their name scroll across the bottom of the (broadcast) TV. This kind of interaction is built into our story networks, everyone can see everyone elses contribution, some are rated highly others not, we can ‘like’ parts of the conversation and refer people right to parts of threads and so on. Theres always the possibility in the ‘real’ world of UCT to develop a long term relationships, the characters are real, they respond and reply (mostly) it feels natural – but entering into an artificial construct you always know at some point, out of your control, the relationship with any character (assuming they have bothered to respond to you) will cease. The service will finish and the story circus moves on. Often the transmedia creators in their wisdom kill off the ‘social’ elements that have built up around their story for business and management reasons, but these relationships, as Laurel Papworth discussed (Closing down Social Media sites) are the lifeblood of future connected projects. It is easy to understand how a story world built up around a brand can slowly build relationships if, and only if, the community infrastructure remains intact. A really important point here and which is often overlooked
The transmedia form will only really evolve if we can tell distributed stories to trusting users that we have had a relationship with for two or more years, they will allow you to extend your ideas and take them on more exciting cross media experiences
9 Creation is Everyone’s Right
It goes without saying, yet it still needs to be said over and over, that audiences themselves are now the largest creators of content on the planet, so you must succumb to their right. In UGT it is now natural and fluid in the way story friends can simply add in their own text, rich media and also move the core story onward too or take it down a new path – it is their lives. But often in pro transmedia we forget to allow them to resonate in our environment and leave their mark in our story world. After we have built the 5th product flash site, hastily setup the 2nd viral product YouTube channel or completed the 8th tweet from the new secret character we lock the door on the way out, turn off comments, upload permissions and so on. It is just too hard to manage. This is fine up to a point, users will accept that you have limited resources, but if you have thousands hooked into a compelling narrative don’t be surprised when they have set up their own transmedia infrastructure and hijacked your story – and you know why, because
The users transmedia story infrastructure if often much better than the professionals artificially constructed one from the outset because it allowed them to create and grow within it themselves
Finally who creates ‘most’ content – the users or the agency and filmmaker pros. As you have no doubt seen on my Social Media Counter the tsunamic of content produced by a growing ‘content creative’ user base is out weighing pro content by factors of thousands. Professionals are time poor and making enough content for cross media users to get their teeth into is problematic, groups of individuals though pooling together on flickr groups or YouTube channels can do so much more. In this climate new original transmedia story IP is fighting against this sea of user created transmedia and the audience themselves have much better strategies for navigating it than we give them/us credit for. Sadly pro transmedia tends towards 90s style production, wall-garden, small pots of content and even the best ‘stories’ have real problem taking root in this garden of ‘flowering’ user created weeds. Derogatory I know, but…
Unless you look at your carefully constructed cross media story as a single fragile flower in a nation of weeds then you lose perspective on why it may potentially wilt and die before it has even been seen.
So in a hastily constructed summary, which I feel this post doesn’t really need, the main point of the above exercise is to say two simple things for the budding transmedia storyteller…
- Study existing story networks and how people are really using them. Don’t focus just on the end content, look at how they use it, build bridges, connect with each other. Once you see how the multi lingual natives do it, think of how your ‘story’ can be told using their tools but also…
- Immerse yourself in these networked media environments yourself at every opportunity. Play in them as a child in their first sandpit, understand the new metaphors and grammar developing particularly in new mobile and pervasive spaces. You really owe it to yourself to have to ability to tell your story in new ways.
Your turn! Sure I have missed a whole range of ways audiences/users who are doing it for themselves are doing it better – c’mon rock up and tell me which ones!